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How general counsel can navigate social and political change

Cultural change has accelerated in many areas, which can add new pressures on growing businesses. For example, the Me Too and Black Lives Matter movements created new avenues for change. And economic equity and environmental concerns are leading to more government regulations for small businesses, such as new labor laws and multi-state human resources compliance requirements.

With the corporate legal environment becoming more complex, the in-house legal department is expected to become proficient at handling an eye-popping range of legal matters. As a business lawyer for a small business, it is likely you have taken part in your organization’s corporate social responsibility initiatives. But now, you must ensure that these initiatives are well positioned to respond to current and emerging shifts in the cultural and political landscapes.

Here are some challenges that in-house legal departments are being called to grapple with — and some advice on the best strategies for effectively tackling these matters

Top four areas to consider

Here are some of the top challenges and opportunities that legal advisors for small businesses face:

1. Addressing diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI)

Calls for racial justice have accelerated in the U.S. in recent years, elevating DEI policy to the top of corporate governance priorities. As companies of all sizes are held accountable to internal and external stakeholders, they must take a public stand on this issue and proactively address systems and processes that affect hiring, workplace culture, and business operations. With widespread concern about diversity, equity, and inclusion in society at large, are you prepared to recommend action that can lead to real change? Learn more about how to thoroughly assess your systems and processes with measurable results in the webinar Executing Your Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Strategy, Implementing Measurable Operations for an Improved DEI Culture.

2. Taking action on climate change

With climate-related goals and initiatives becoming more prevalent, including the Biden administration’s calls for clean energy and pollution reduction, socially conscious consumers pay extra attention to companies’ positions and actions on this issue. In the retail space, for example, 62% of Generation Z and millennial shoppers say they prefer to purchase from brands that focus on sustainability. In-house legal teams can help executives understand the importance of these trends and of complying with changing regulations on environmental issues. Check out the Association of Corporate Counsel’s sustainability resource library to learn more.

3. Cultivating transparency in supply chains

Examining your company’s supply chain to ensure it is free of human rights abuses, for example, is not only an issue of reducing liability and mitigating potential public relations problems but also a matter of helping your company operationalize its stated values. You may want to consult with colleagues at other organizations. One option is to join BSR’s Human Rights Working Group, which aims to help companies implement the United Nations’ Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights in business operations.

4. Protecting consumers’ data

While data protection may seem like a technical matter, it is also a concern on a cultural level. Consumers see data privacy and protection as a question of good corporate citizenship in a changing world. In a recent survey of 1,000 U.S. consumers by McKinsey & Company, 87% said they would refuse to do business with any company that had questionable security practices. To access expert legal guidance and practical tools to assist you in crafting a cybersecurity policy, check out Thomson Reuters Practical Law.

How legal departments can prepare

With all these concerns, and many more, in-house lawyers in growing businesses may have a lot to handle. These matters require time and attention beyond your day-to-day priorities, so getting some basic operational building blocks in place to help in this work will be essential.

Here are some key safeguards to put in place:

Reform corporate governance

In-house legal teams are tasked with helping their companies stay on the right side of a variety of issues. But to do so, they need the executive team’s cooperation and support. Helping reform corporate governance in ways that reflect company values is the first step in your company speaking with one unified voice on issues of cultural and political importance.

Ensure sound data protection

While the question of how companies care for consumers’ data is coming under an increasing amount of cultural and political scrutiny, the steps needed to address it are technical and specific. Putting solid data protection policies and technologies in place will ensure that your company has its best foot forward in any conversation about keeping consumers’ information safe online.

Consult a diverse range of sources

Because the law department is tasked with providing expert legal guidance on so many different topics, lawyers in fast-growing companies must have easy access to a diverse range of sources. This applies to legal documentation, such as the resources found in Thomson Reuters Practical Law for startups and small businesses, as well as to sources of general knowledge and background. Keep up with a range of news, business and social research, and academic analysis in order to know the latest thinking on a variety of topics.

Extend your team with an experienced resource partner

Legal departments — even single-person departments — can receive many requests to advise on compliance and internal policies. It’s essential to tap into dependable knowledge bases quickly and at low cost to keep up with current pressing issues and brush up on new ones as they arise.

Practical Law offers a wealth of expert legal resources for startups and small businesses, including Practice Notes, Toolkits, and templates. With it, legal departments access the information they need to advise their businesses in times of shifting cultural and political currents.

Would you like to have expert legal guidance at your fingertips?

Check out the Startups and Small Businesses Collection on Practical Law